IBRA regions: savanna and arid

Figure 1: Australian tropical savanna boundaries as defined by bioregions

The Population of Savanna Australia 

Determining the population and demographics of northern Australia is not easy.  With few people spread over such a large area, even a small variation in sampling or in how you define the savannas can cause large differences in results. 

The Tropical Savannas CRC defines the tropical savannas by the boundaries of the biogeographic regions shown in Figure 1, whereas the Australian Bureau of Statistics group population figures within various statistical boundaries with those covering the tropical savannas shown in Figure 2.

 Note that Rockhampton and surrounds (marked with arrow, below) with a population of around 75,000 (2001 Census) lies within the tropical savannas as defined by bioregions (it lies just inside the Brigelow Belt North Bioregion), but outside the tropical savannas as defined by statistical regions.

  SLA regions showing savannas

Figure 2: Australian tropical savannas as defined by statistical boundaries

Consequently, because the population estimates for the savanna region are highly sensitive to which of the relatively few urban centres are included, figures range from 418,000 to 604,000, depending on how the region is defined.

The highly mobile nature of the population and cultural and language differences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people also mean that much population and demographic data for savanna Australia is not robust, because the Census measures information about demographics by permanent residence and household. This raises a number of problems for policy-making, resource allocation and management of the savannas, particularly in some indigenous communities where the population has been grossly underestimated by census data, leading to a lack of allocated housing 1.

The population data in this article draws on Taylor, J., Brown, D. And Bell, M. (2006) Scoping Population Dynamics and Demographic Accounting in Arid and Savanna Australia: Methods, Issues and Outcomes, published by the Desert Knowledge and Tropical Savannas Cooperative Research Centres. This report considers the savanna zone to include the regions of the Kimberley, Top End, Cape York and parts of the north-eastern coast of Queensland, as well as the region considered to be an overlap between arid and savanna zones (see Figure 2).  As noted above these boundaries are less inclusive than those stipulated by both the Tropical Savanna CRC and Environment Australia, which estimate a much higher population, mainly due to their inclusion of the major regional town of Rockhampton. 

The data used is based upon the results of the 2001 Census conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). The industry and employment section of this report uses the boundaries stipulated by the Tropical Savanna CRC, so results will vary.  Organisations such as the Tropical Savanna CRC are working to obtain consistent data about the population and demographics of northern Australia.

Population Overview

In 2006 approximately 517,816 people live in the savanna zone (based upon 2001 projections).

  • 19% of the savanna population identified themselves as Indigenous. 
  • 52% of the savanna population live in the cities of Darwin and Townsville.  Most of these people are non-Indigenous.
  • The remaining 48% is spread out over an area of 1.67million km2 (22% of Australian landmass) — a population density of just 0.14 persons per km2.  This is minute even in comparison with the overall Australian population density of 2.5 persons and highlights the remote nature of the savanna.
  Remoteness of savanna regions

Figure 3: The tropical savanna and arid regions and remoteness

Most areas within the savanna and arid zones are considered to be either remote or very remote (Figure 3)

  • Katherine, Darwin and Cairns serve as important service centres for remote communities in the savanna.
  • Most Indigenous people choose to live in remote areas on their traditional lands. In 2001, only 19% of Indigenous people in the savanna chose to live in Darwin or Townsville, compared to 57% of non-Indigenous people.
  • The Indigenous population of remote Australia has grown by 23% from 1981–2001.

The savanna can be characterised by a young, rapidly growing Indigenous population and an ageing, yet steadily growing non-Indigenous population (See Figure 4)

  • The Indigenous population is characterised by high fertility rates, a large proportion of young people 5–14 years and high mortality rates for all age groups, particularly males aged 15–24 years and people aged over 45 years.

  • The average life expectancy for an Indigenous person in Australia is about 20 years below that of a non-Indigenous person.  This is a result of high rates of chronic illnesses brought on by a sudden change to Western diet and lifestyle, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.  Indigenous people are also exposed to a higher incidence of suicides, child abuse, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, violence and imprisonment than non-Indigenous people as a result of social disadvantage, high unemployment rates and cultural isolation. Poor health and living conditions cause low birth weights and a higher incidence of perinatal mortality.

  • The migration rate for Indigenous people is low compared to that of non-Indigenous people, although Indigenous people are generally highly mobile within the savanna zone.

  • The non-Indigenous population is characterised by lower fertility rates, a net migration loss of young people aged 10–24 years as they leave home to seek education and employment; and a higher proportion of people aged 25–44 years. The absence of this trend in Indigenous populations indicates the lack of such opportunities.

  • The non-Indigenous population is clearly male-dominated. Mortality rates are low, with a relatively large number of people surviving past the age of 75 years.
Structure of demographics

Figure 4: Population structure in the savannas: The colour overlay shows the dramatic difference in life expectancy and fertility rates between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous population in Australia's savanna region

Demographic trends

This article draws largely on Taylor, J., Brown, D. And Bell, M. (2006) Scoping Population Dynamics and Demographic Accounting in Arid and Savanna Australia: Methods, Issues and Outcomes, published by the Desert Knowledge and Tropical Savannas Cooperative Research Centres.

Itinerant non-Indigenous population

There are strong links between industry, employment and population demographics.  Many non-Indigenous people temporarily relocate to savanna regions to seek seasonal and other short-term employment.

Highly mobile Indigenous population

Indigenous people are forced to travel long distances within the savanna region to access services which can only be provided in larger towns, such as specialised medical care, retail supply outlets, banking services, education facilities (such as the Batchelor Institute) or employment services.  They also travel to other communities to visit family and fulfil cultural obligations such as attending ceremonies or visiting sick relatives. 

Many Indigenous people are forced to relocate from a remote community to a larger town to gain employment because of the limited employment opportunities in remote areas.

Rapid growth of indigenous population, particularly within large indigenous communities

Savanna Indigenous population has increased from 72,268 in 1996 to 81,422 in 2001. It is projected to grow 26% from 2006–2021.  The growth will be most prevalent amongst people aged 45–64 years (61%) and over 65 years (37%).

Most large Indigenous communities with a population of over 1000 people are located within the savanna zone. There are 21 large communities of between 1000 and 10,000 people in the savanna zone and most of these towns are experiencing rapid growth.  Many of these communities suffer from housing shortages and a lack of infrastructure as the rapidly growing population is not met with a matching growth in support.  

Poor state of housing and facilities in Aboriginal communities is known to contribute to increased morbidity and mortality rates from bacterial tract infections.  A 2001 survey of 79% of community housing found that 45-46% of houses did not adequately meet basic personal hygiene and sanitation needs of the occupants2.  A lack of cooking facilities and/or refrigeration in 62% of houses is also of concern due to the high rates of obesity, diabetes and poor nutrition in Indigenous communities.

Steady growth of non-Indigenous population

The savanna non-indigenous population is projected to grow by 15% from 2006–2021.  This growth is prevalent amongst people aged 25–44 years in the towns of Darwin (25%) and Townsville (21%).  This is partly balanced by a trend in non-Indigenous people migrating out of the savanna zone as young people leave their home town after secondary school to seek tertiary education and employment elsewhere.

Increasing savanna population

There has been a significant natural increase in the population of the savanna, from 457,063 in 1996 to 493,616 in 2001. This contrasts with a declining population in the arid zone. The Indigenous population has grown significantly in savanna, arid and semi-arid zones due to higher birth rates.



1. Taylor, J., Brown, D. And Bell, M. (2006) Scoping Population Dynamics and Demographic Accounting in Arid and Savanna Australia: Methods, Issues and Outcomes, published by the Desert Knowledge and Tropical Savannas Cooperative Research Centres

2. Bailie, R and Runcie, M (2001) Household infrastructure in Aboriginal communities and the implications for health improvement, The Medical Journal of Australia 175, pp.363–366,

The Australian Bureau of Statistics is the primary government body collecting information on the nature of the Australian population.